FEATURE: Robins’ right-hand man loving life at the NMG after illustrious career

Andy Watson is enjoying life at Ilkeston.
Andy Watson is enjoying life at Ilkeston.

He’s experienced cup wins over the likes of Real Madrid, Arsenal and Celtic, been part of an international coaching setup and helped guide Glasgow Rangers to the last 16 of the Champions League.

Many might ask, therefore, what on earth Andy Watson is now doing in the relatively small footballing backdrop of Ilkeston.

Alex McLeish (left) with Andy Watson at Hibernian.

Alex McLeish (left) with Andy Watson at Hibernian.

But Watson is a man who loves the game and his vast experience in it has meant he has plenty of advice to give the young players at the New Manor Ground in his role as assistant to head coach, and fellow Aberdonian, Gavin Strachan.

The 56-year-old has been there and done it all. From being part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen squad that won the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup as well as various other titles, to winning leagues and cups as assistant to Alex McLeish during his time as manager at Motherwell, Hibs, Glasgow Rangers, Birmingham City and also the Scotland national team.

And it’s back in Aberdeen at the turn of the 1980s where Watson’s story begins.

“The highlight of my playing career was actually breaking into the Aberdeen team in 79-80 and us going on to win the league for the first time in 25 years,” he said.

Andy Watson pictured in action for Hearts against Rangers at Ibrox in 1987.

Andy Watson pictured in action for Hearts against Rangers at Ibrox in 1987.

“Alex Ferguson inherited a very good team but was able to turn that quality into trophies so it was a great time to be at the club.

“I played numerous games in the Cup Winners’ Cup run but even though I was an unused sub in the final, it was still incredible to be part of.”

Spells followed with Leeds United, Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian that included Scottish league and cup winning honours as well as Scotland under-21 caps, but a persistent knee injury eventually curtailed Watson’s playing career.

“I was only 27 but had started going through the process of getting my coaching badges,” he said.

“When I was forced to retire I coached the reserves, the academy and eventually the first team at Hibs but then Alex McLeish, who I’d played alongside at Aberdeen, asked if I’d become his assistant at Motherwell.”

There began a partnership that would last some 17 years, during which time the pair oversaw great success, in particular at Rangers where two league titles and five cups were won in five years.

A ten-month spell under McLeish with the Scotland national team followed with qualification for the 2008 European Championships just missed out on despite a famous 1-0 win over France in Paris being among the results achieved.

With McLeish then appointed boss at Birmingham, Watson followed and despite relegation from the Premier League in their first season, immediate promotion and then a ninth-place finish - City’s highest in 50 years - was followed a year later by a dramatic 2-1 win over Arsenal in the League Cup Final at Wembley.

Watson said: “We were comfortable in the league at the time of the cup win but then a lot of players who had been brought in to make a difference like Obafemi Martins, Nikola Zigic and Scott Dann didn’t play again and we ended up on a bad run and getting relegated.”

McLeish and Watson left City shortly afterwards and went their separate ways, McLeish soon taking up the manager’s post at local rivals Aston Villa and Watson having a break from coaching until moving to Notts County in 2013 to work with manager Chris Kiwomya, the duo departing Meadow Lane after five months.

Fast forward two years and Watson, who had played alongside Gavin Strachan’s father Gordon for Aberdeen, would get a call from Strachan junior inviting him to be part of the new regime at Ilkeston FC.

Watson said: “I knew of Gavin in his own right from his playing career and through him being involved in the coaching setup at Peterborough.

“Our paths had crossed briefly before and he knew I wasn’t involved at a club, and in June this year he called me regarding the position here.

“I was impressed by what was on offer. I’d never worked at this level before but the fact it was a full-time football environment and the structures and procedures Gavin had put in place reflected that meant it was appealing.

“Working with young players was something I’d enjoyed doing before in my career, so coupled with the ambition of the club to progress higher up the leagues it was a role I was delighted to take on.”

Having now settled in and overseen a mixed start to the new season, Watson says he is enjoying life at the New Manor Ground and that he is positive about the future.

“It’s been a great experience so far,” he said.

“Gavin’s really passionate, infectious and enthusiastic and a pleasure to work with which in turn has helped me a lot.

“Everyone at the club works very hard. Nigel Harrop (owner) and Andrew Raisin (secretary) in particular do so much that you’d think is beyond their remit and everybody else mucks in too.

“I like the family feel to the place because it’s as if I’ve gone full circle in terms of what it was like when I started out at Aberdeen.

“We’ve only been here since June so we’re learning what the league is about. The players are working really hard and do what’s expected of them.

“The results haven’t all gone our way but we can see exactly where we’re short and aren’t naive to that.

“We’re creating too many chances and working too hard for things not to turn in our favour soon. Without wanting to get the violins out, we’ve also had a lot of luck go against us when you look at some of the key goals we’ve conceded.

“It will take time but we’re slowly learning, building and developing. We had just three players at the start so it’s been a case of finding out what kind of players it’ll take to succeed at this level.

“It’s a really good club. The fans are fantastic in the way they support the team home and away and there’s a great vibe about the place. I’m absolutely loving it.”